Postmodernism In Sociology Research Paper

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Prominent fields of postmodernist research have been work and organizations, political action, science and technology, commodification, consumption, gender, media, and popular culture. Classical sociological topics like symbolic consumption have been further explored and enriched. Sociological postmodernism has also pioneered domains like computers and the Internet. It is to be expected that in the future postmodernist research will evolve in the direction of concrete field studies, with an emphasis on the cultural forms induced by computers and the Internet.

In sociology, postmodernism designates (a) a cluster of theoretical and meta-theoretical approaches; (b) an analysis of postmodernity, understood as encompassing the social and cultural features of late capitalism; (c) an extension of sociological inquiry to new domains; and (d) new forms of sociological expression. Sociological postmodernism is thus a form of sociological analysis, a kind of sociological sensibility, and a sociologists’ social and intellectual condition at the same time. Its varieties share a series of theoretical and methodological premises, but differ in their conclusions and research programs. Core common elements are: (a) avoiding recourse to a set of universally valid assumptions as theoretical and methodological foundations, together with (b) the key role ascribed to notions like subject, identity, text, and symbol in the analysis of society.

1. Origins Of Postmodernism

The term ‘postmodernism’ has been used in Latin-American literary criticism since the 1930s, and in Anglo-American debates since the 1940s, in order to designate new forms of expression in their relationship with the aesthetic of modernism. In history, the term was used by the British historian Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History in 1947 and designated the latest phase of Western civilization. In sociology, it was introduced by Amitai Etzioni’s book The Acti e Society in 1968. Starting with the early 1970s, the term appeared more and more frequently in sociological texts in France, North America, and the UK. At that time, it was already common stock in literary theory and criticism. An essay written by the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979) played a seminal role in making this term widely known and used in the social sciences. Therefore, postmodernism was partially a conceptual import; its diffusion in the 1970s was part of a wider innovative movement in the discipline, marked, among others, by the rise of social constructivism and feminism. At the same time, it continued and reformulated a series of topics already present in sociology.

The intellectual roots of sociological postmodernism can be identified in the works of some key nineteenth and early twentieth century philosophers, sociologists, and linguists. Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism, Georg Simmel’s analysis of modernization processes, Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of epistemology, and Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of language play here a prominent role. The French structuralist movement (Claude Levi-Strauss’s anthropology, Roland Barthes’s semiotic theory, Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis), and the poststructuralist one (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida), Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later works, and Clifford Geertz’s anthropology have also played a considerable role. Among other influences there are the Frankfurt School (Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse), symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, and phenomenological sociology.

2. The Tenets Of Postmodernism

There are two main tenets, mirroring the distinction between postmodernism and post-modernity: while the latter designates the social and cultural features of late capitalism, distinguishing them from earlier phases (modernity), the former designates a theoretical and methodological program, as distinct from earlier (modernist) ones.

2.1 The Analysis Of Postmodernity

The analysis of postmodernity developed at the beginning of the 1970s, continuing a preoccupation already found in the works of Georg Simmel, Thorstein Veblen, and the Frankfurt School. Postmodernity is a late phase in the evolution of the capitalist system, seen either as a continuation and intensification of modernity, or as a substantially new stage. It is characterized by the transition from manufacture to a decentralized services economy; science and complex technological systems play a key role here. Decentralization, together with the pervasiveness of expert and technological systems in all domains of everyday life lead to a fragmentation and diversification of social identities. The electronic media (television, computers, video) are prominent in the constitution and presentation of social reality; visual and linguistic symbols become pervasive, while popular cultural forms diversify and expand. Society is therefore fragmented and heterogeneous; social order is always local and contextual, and works as an assemblage of symbolic codes. Production and consumption, social stratification, as well as personal and collective identities become dependent on such codes. They are understood as a support, a medium for, and an outcome of social action. This notion becomes a general explanatory paradigm: every domain of societal organization can be seen as a symbolic system and analyzed accordingly.

Consequently, sociology (an outcome of modernity itself) should take fragmentation, decentralization, relativization, and the mediated character of social reality into account; it should adapt its own tenets, claims, as well as its own modes of analysis and representation to these changes. Starting from these premises, Zygmunt Bauman (1992) has argued that notions like sociality, habitat, self-constitution, and body are better suited for the analysis of contemporary social processes than the traditional concepts of society and order.

2.2 The Critique Of Modernist Sociology

During the 1980s, a second theme made its way from philosophy and literary theory into sociological debates. It was a critique of the status of sociological theory as a modernist product, and it drafted a new methodological program. This debate raised a series of questions about the validity claims of scientific theories, the nature of scientific truth, and the status of the knowing subject, arguing that: (a) all knowledge is contextual and local; (b) the validity claims of any scientific theory are not to be found in some abstract, universal criteria, but are rather the results of either negotiated consensus or power struggles; and (c) as a consequence, the knowing subject does not dispose of universal criteria to ascertain the validity and truth of his or her knowledge. The subject should not be seen as autonomous with respect to an objective, given world, but rather as the product of social circumstances. Since knowledge has a contextual and local character, it follows that scientific theories are reinterpreted according to local conditions: they are open-ended and cannot be controlled by their authors. Scientific theories are not determined by external validity and truth criteria; they work as systems of symbols enabling certain courses of social action and promoting a certain worldview. On these grounds, there should be a structural similarity between texts and social order: both are locally determined, network-like, open-ended systems of symbols requiring certain kinds of action from the actors embedded in them.

Notions like text and performance should occupy a prominent place in the analysis of social phenomena. Sociology should focus on investigating and describing how symbol systems work in particular social contexts, instead of producing all-encompassing theories. This claim, together with the one that the knowing subject is the product of social circumstances, have sometimes been described in a more radical form as ‘the end of sociological theory’ and the ‘death of the author,’ respectively. A corollary of these arguments is that sociological theories should acknowledge the fragmentation and diversity inherent in the local character of knowledge; they should explore their consequences for the world we live in, and should experiment with new modes of representation—like poetry, or dialogical forms. To some extent, these epistemological claims overlap with those of the first strand of postmodernist sociology. However, we encounter an important difference: while the first strand derives the fragmentation, relativization, and diversification of knowledge from social changes, the second one takes them as stemming out of a number of epistemological, universally valid first principles.

At the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, such meta-theoretical topics were intensely debated in sociology and, for a short time, even eclipsed the first strand of postmodernism. However, the acceleration of globalization processes brought social analysis to the forefront again.

3. The Methodology Of Postmodernist Sociology

One important methodological aspect is the antipositivist and antiverificationist stance: there is no totalizing explanatory model and no universally valid verification procedure. Postmodernist sociology stresses the role of qualitative methods in the analysis of contemporary social phenomena, as a consequence of the prominence of visual and linguistic symbols. While some authors (Richardson 1997) emphasize interpretation and subjectivity, others (Lemert 1997) argue that methodology must preserve objectivity and logical consistency. There has been an increased sociological interest for discourse analysis, understood as a cluster of techniques for grasping the emergence, functioning, and context-boundedness of symbolic codes. Ethnographic methods, earlier reserved for the study of ‘exotic’ societies or of marginal social phenomena, also play an important role. This has increased the interest for texts and writing processes as sources of conceptual enrichment in sociology. Poetry, drama, or dialog are promoted as legitimate complements to the established, academic expository modes. Hybrid forms of sociological expression have appeared too—for example, in works combining academically written texts, poetry, and artwork (Haraway 1997).

4. Fields Of Postmodernist Research

Postmodernist analyses have been prominent in domains like work and organizations, political action, science and technology, commodification and consumption, gender, media, and popular culture. George Ritzer (1993), for example, has examined the new forms of work which emerge in the knowledge-based, global economy: they are characterized by fragmentation, local specialization, flexibility, and mobility, on the one hand, and by global dispersion and typification, on the other. Under these circumstances, the temporal and spatial conditions of work change substantially: while the lifespan of products shortens, they need to be replaced faster, and worktime expands. Tensions arise between requirements for flexibility and mobility, on the one hand, and typification, on the other. New directions in commodification and consumption complete this picture. Commodification is understood as the unrelentless expansion of market exchange, which reshapes social relationships according to its own logic; the pendant of this process is the increased social significance of the act of consumption. Jean Baudrillard (1972), for example, has argued that symbolic consumption becomes one of the main social mechanisms through which individual and collective identities, as well as social relationships are defined and reproduced.

In political sociology, the analysis has focused on political discourses and symbolisms, on the spectacular form taken by political events, and on the role of television as a medium for political action. Another direction has been to examine the strains put on democracy by the media-induced forms of political action, and by the globalized economy. Authors like Chantal Mouffe (1992) have asked whether the new economic and political conditions do not require devising new forms of democratic participation and of political action.

With knowledge lying at the core of the postmodern society, science has been a domain of sustained investigation. The focus has been on the changes brought about by the new information and biomedical technologies in social life, as well as on the role and effects of complex technological systems. Bruno Latour (1991) and Donna Haraway (1997), among others, have argued that such systems are so pervasive and deep-reaching, and that social life is dependent on them to such an extent that new forms of social symbiosis have emerged; these are described with the help of notions like the cyborg society, hybrids, or networks of human and nonhuman actors. These authors have called for a revision of the conceptual apparatus of sociology on the grounds of the relationships between human actors and technical systems.

A further domain of investigation, situated at the crossroads between feminist and postmodernist sociology, has been that of gender and sexuality. Postmodern diversification brings forth a fragmentation and multiplicity of gender and sexual identities. The distinctions between genders become blurred; some forms of sexual identity formerly considered marginal gain a new significance, and new sexual identities emerge (e.g., transsexuality). Owing to the local and contextual character of knowledge, the gender specificity of knowledge and experience has to be taken into account. Several authors (e.g., Smith 1990) have explored the ways and the implications of genderspecific knowledge in the workplace, the field of politics, popular culture, and the public sphere.

One of the key domains in which the impact of postmodernist sociology has been felt is that of the electronic media and communication. Since the social changes brought about by computers and television have been considerable, questions arise about new, media-induced forms of social life and organization. According to Jean Baudrillard, among others, large portions of the social world are now media generated, and whole series of political and social events have a media-supported existence: they exist as simulacra, as symbolic codes which can be reproduced endlessly, without making recourse to an original. Other domains of investigation have been computers in the workplace, or the media-induced forms of social life, like those arising in and around the Internet (Turkle 1995). Finally, postmodernist sociology has also considerably influenced the subfields of cultural and urban studies, reinvigorating a research tradition which goes back at least to the Chicago School of sociology.

5. The State Of Postmodernist Research

Postmodernist sociology has been around for approximately three decades; while controversial and contested for some of its more radical theoretical stances, many postmodernist ideas have made inroads into mainstream sociology. At the same time, it has continued and enriched a series of themes already present in classical sociology—like the sociology of consumption, or the study of popular cultures. It has also pioneered some new domains of research—the study of Internet cultures, of the media, or (together with ethnomethodology) that of the impact of computers. Together with feminist sociology, it has had a considerable influence on the sociology of gender and sexuality. Its empirical, domain-oriented impact has been more significant than that of its pure theoretical tenets.

6. New Research Directions

The cultural forms induced by the electronic media (e.g., the culture of software programmers, of Internet users) have not been studied in depth until now. The changes in consumption patterns and market relationships brought about by the Internet, the rapid rise of popular electronic exchanges, the Internet’s role in the globalization processes are topics which await deeper exploration too. It is to be expected that postmodernist sociology will evolve more and more in the direction of empirical, concrete field studies, focusing on these phenomena.


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